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Remembering Harvey Lichtenstein, culture giant who built BAM

Harvey Lichtenstein, shown in 1988, was the towering

Harvey Lichtenstein, shown in 1988, was the towering figure who built Brooklyn Academy of Music into what it is today. He died Feb. 11, 2017, at 87. Credit: Newsday / Bruce Gilbert

The past is very much with us, as this theatrical grab bag can attest:

When Harvey Lichtenstein died Feb. 11 at 87, he was remembered as the culture giant who built the Brooklyn Academy of Music that we know today.

This is obviously true. As executive producer from 1967 until he retired in 1999, Lichtenstein transformed BAM from a historic, dilapidated 1908 former opera house on a scary street in Fort Greene to a performing arts hub with two theaters, a four-screen movie theater and a cafe-performance space.

He was a radical impresario who showcased the esoteric and avant-garde as if they were hot-ticket entertainment, which much of it became.

But anyone who went to the neighborhood with trepidation, even in the early ’80s, has found that Lichtenstein’s stubborn and dogged belief in BAM turned out to be a huge part of the rebirth of hipster-turned-gentry Brooklyn. BAM, which began as a center for new American artists and noncommercial European imports, was an undeniable force of what once seemed an improbable real estate boom.

Lichtenstein began with a budget of $675,000 and left the complex with $20 million. He also left much more. This included a 900-seat theater, now called the BAM Harvey, carved from an old theater-turned-movie house in 1987. Around the time of Lichtenstein’s retirement, choreographer Mark Morris told Newsday “Harvey gave me a forum in 1984 when nobody knew who I was. He thought my work would move, and he was right.”

By 2001, a broken-down building near the Opera House became the beautiful Mark Morris Dance Center, home to his company and a school. In 2012, BAM added the flexible 250-seat BAM Fisher, to what is called, with no hype, the BAM Cultural District.

Joseph Melillo, Lichtenstein’s successor as executive producer, told me at the time that the Fisher opened “a whole range of work that we couldn’t do because we lacked the appropriate venue.” Then just a year later, down the block, the independent Theatre for a New Audience, the fine classic company that had been itinerant since 1979, opened its airy modern Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

So the neighborhood is unrecognizable, as is the borough around it. Lichtenstein, born in Brooklyn to Eastern European immigrants and educated at Brooklyn College, vowed when he retired that “BAM is only going to get more amazing.” Thanks to him, it did.


Spring on Broadway is hysterically busy with new work, but there also are major revivals of 20th century landmarks (and demi-landmarks) by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman.

The most familiar of the upcoming trio is “The Glass Menagerie,” now in previews and opening at the Belasco Theatre on March 9, which has had six productions since the shimmering drama ignited Williams’ career in 1945 with the legendary Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield. Broadway has since seen Maureen Stapleton (twice), Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Jessica Lange and Cherry Jones portray the iconic, overprotective, disappointed mother of the disabled Laura and the restless Tom, whose memory play this is.

And now we have Sally Field who, you may have noticed, hasn’t been Gidget in a very long time. The actress, who has two Oscars, played the wife in a replacement cast of Edward Albee’s “The Goat,” and she was terrific. In addition to the chance to see her as Amanda, the production is directed by Sam Gold (“Fun Home,” the Daniel Craig “Othello”). And Joe Mantello, who left acting for directing after “Angels in America” and only returned for the recent revival of “The Normal Heart,” will be Tom. Before anyone gets outraged that Mantello is too old to be Field’s son, know that she is 70 and he is 54, which could work. And certainly this is less age-inappropriate than Field playing Tom Hanks’ mother in “Forrest Gump.” She’s just 10 years older than he is.

“The Price,” in previews, opening March 16 at the American Airlines Theatre, has what I’m guessing will be a dream cast — Tony Shalhoub, Mark Ruffalo, Danny DeVito and Jessica Hecht, in a production directed by Terry Kinney. The drama, written in 1968 and revived on Broadway three other times, takes place in the attic of a brownstone where a family gathers to divide what’s left of the estate, an ideal setting for Miller to parse the difference between the value of things and the price.

“Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes,” with previews beginning March 29 for an April 19 opening at the Friedman Theatre, has potential to be an authentic hoot. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon (don’t make me choose) are going to alternate in the roles of Regina and Birdie in Hellman’s 1939 drama about greed and spite and the family estate in the small-town South, circa 1900. Tallulah Bankhead played Regina at the opening, followed by Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing. The melodrama, which also stars Richard Thomas and Michael McKean, is directed by the formidable Daniel Sullivan.


The celebrated documentary about the creation and the ups and the downs of Stephen Sondheim’s always-glorious, always-troubled “Merrily We Roll Along” will be screened at Cinema Arts Centre at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28.

The saga — and it is a saga — begins with the 1981 premiere of the show, directed by Harold Prince. Like the 1934 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, George Furth’s adaptation told the story of friends corrupted by fame in reverse. The actors were all teenage unknowns who begin the show portraying bitter adults and age backward. The much-anticipated show played just 16 performances, but has been revived since in many different incarnations. Lonny Price has directed the documentary, which includes never-before seen footage of Sondheim working with Prince on the show. And the songs are heartbreakers.

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